After Lisa Pelofsky learned of a disturbance near her downtown Kansas City office recently, she dialed 911 from her cell phone. She gave the address to a dispatcher and waited outside.
Ten minutes later, her cell phone rang.
“We sent cars and no one’s there,” the dispatcher said. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” a puzzled Pelofsky replied. “I’m standing right here!”
Soon, the dispatcher zeroed in on the problem: “Are you in Kansas City, Missouri?”
Sure enough, Pelofsky was standing in the 600 block of Central Street in Kansas City, Missouri — not among the officers in the 600 block of Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kan.
It never dawned on Pelofsky, a Kansas City police board member, that her 911 call had bounced across the state line.
The incident made her wonder aloud at a police board meeting this week how often cell phone calls land in the wrong 911 call center, delaying response times, and how often officers are sent to non-existent calls, wasting resources.
Major Bob Kuehl said most calls go to the right emergency call center, but radio signals can be unpredictable.
“They can bounce off a building or a hill,” he said. “There’s a lot of random physics involved.
“We’re particularly vulnerable because we’re so close to the state line,” he said. Adjacent cities in the Northland also pose a problem.
To make its jurisdiction clear, Kansas City changed its call-taker greeting in 2008 to: “Kansas City 911.”
Kansas City receives about one errant 911 call a week, Kuehl said. The problem is worse in Kansas City, Kan., where dispatchers handle about a dozen errant calls each day, many from Merriam, according to Capt. Bob Angell.
Because of the frequency, Angell said his dispatchers are prepared for such calls. A mix-up usually becomes clear early on, he said, when callers describe their location.
But in Pelofsky’s case, KCK happened to have a street with the same name, which Angell said is “somewhat uncommon.”
911 calls dialed from cell phones in the metropolitan area provide dispatchers with a computerized map they can review, to double-check where help is needed. But depending on the carrier and signal strength, that information can range from an exact location to nothing more than the site of the cell phone tower.
In Pelofsky’s incident, it’s unclear what information the dispatcher had. Pelofsky said she wasn’t tipped off to a problem because the dispatcher answered generically, saying: “911. What’s your emergency?”
Angell said he didn’t think a greeting change would help already frazzled 911 callers.
Either way, the incident serves as a reminder that cell phone technology, while amazing, isn’t perfect. And that 911 callers should mention their city, along with an address, when using a cell phone. Just in case.